This week, the former phosphate mine Piney Point, which made headlines as last summer’s environmental disaster announced that they were releasing 4 million gallons of pure rainwater. Their claim for this seems to be that they had at least one totally empty and recently relined gypsum stack (More below). Apparently this virginal gypsum stack filled with 4 million gallons of nothing but rain and now needs to be emptied into Tampa Bay. A process which as of this writing has already started. This raises a number of questions and we have a few possible answers.
Q: What is a gypsum stack?
A: Fancy word for a hole in the ground that in ideal conditions holds nutrient polluted water. The tailings from phosphate mining and fertilizer production are too contaminated to be immediately released to a water source and first need to be treated. Treatment costs money so these companies usually go no further than step one; storage of contaminated waste. Once they have a lot of waste on their hands and or there are any questions about it, they pay out the rest of the companies assets in salaries, declare bankruptcy, and leave the taxpayers in Florida to literally clean it up. That’s the fate of Piney Point, it’s in a court appointed receivership as the result of a bankruptcy.
Q: Why would Piney Point have a gypsum stack that was completely empty?
A: It doesn’t seem like they would. Seemingly, spreading the contaminated water that they need to eventually be rid of across the most surface area would allow for the fastest evaporation. The idea that they would drain one single stack for the purpose of holding rain water doesn’t…...hold water. When the rain falls on Piney Point, you can’t channel it into one stack without also taking in at least some runoff. Part of their claim in this story is that there’s no runoff, only rainwater. Let’s say they originally had 4 stacks, all 75% full and they decided to empty one spreading its contents across the other 3. Now the 3 are going to have next to no holding capacity and the property is going to have some amount of runoff. A more logical approach to get ready for the rainy season would involve bringing the stacks close to equilibrium, letting them fill with rain, and don’t pretend that the stacks are “pure” anything.
Q: Why might they be actually releasing contaminated water under the guise that its rainwater?
A: Dumping out rainwater requires comparatively no permitting next to dumping out water contaminated by phosphate mining. Besides the increased cost, a permit can be publicly challenged and brings even more scrutiny than this process.
Q: Is it physically possible that Piney Point had an empty, newly lined stack before the rainy season, as is their claim?
A: Yes, it is possible. Without seeing their entire site plan, it would seem like a poor management strategy and more importantly IF they had an empty stack on that site it would be factually inaccurate to call what’s in it 6 months later “pure rainwater”.